German Justice in Action: Acquitted in 20 Minutes

Occasionally, when I’m in the neighborhood, I like to drop in and watch a German trial. German court proceedings, especially criminal proceedings, are governed by the “openness principle” (Öffentlichkeitsgrundsatz), which means that anyone can visit them.

Today it was the Amtsgericht, which is where most criminal trials in Germany are held. You have to pass through security screening, but it’s fairly routine. The court building, quite new and handsome, is usually mostly empty; most of the actual business is done inside courtrooms and offices. People arrive and leave to participate in trials without hanging around.

This trip to the courthouse was pretty interesting, because I got to see a complete trial from beginning to end, and it only lasted 20 minutes. The defendant was a Kurdish guy in his late 20s, who arrived with a few family members. The trial began with the prosecutor reading the indictment, which was “resisting a law officer” (Widerstand gegen Vollstreckungsbeamte). The prosecutor was a young lawyer who seemed pretty detached — this was just one of several cases he was going to handle, and, seemingly, not a very important one. After the indictment was read, the judge — also a young male lawyer — turned to the defendant and asked for some basic background information, which the guy gave. (Judges and prosecutors in district courts tend to be young; it’s the first step on the judicial career ladder, which starts directly after law school).

The judge then asked if he had anything to say, while reminding him he wasn’t obliged to say anything. The young man gave a short statement: the charges were totally unfounded; he never kicked or punched any law enforcement officer, and the video evidence would prove it. He admitted he was “aufgebracht” (upset), but that’s because the police had ordered the demonstration to be dispersed “because of the flag” and then blocked in some of the demonstrators with a cordon.

Nobody mentioned it at trial, but this was a pro-Kurdish demonstration (g) in Düsseldorf which took place on 4 November 2017 which devolved into chaos and resulted in numerous injuries. An administrative court had authorized the demonstration, but forbidden demonstrators to display images of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the militant Kurdish nationalist PKK party, who is currently imprisoned in Turkey. The PKK has been banned in Germany since the 1990s, and this ban has been interpreted to include images of Öcalan. About 6,000 demonstrators showed up, and waved flags with Öcalan’s image. The police then ordered the demonstration dispersed, and things got ugly.

At the trial, though, the only question was whether the defendant had actually resisted a law officer. The judge was supposed to call a witness, presumably a cop, but the witness was sick. After a brief conversation, the judge decided to go ahead anyway. He whipped out a video disc containing a film of the encounter, and played it at the witness stand, so the defendant and the prosecutors could both see (but us visitors could not). Eventually, everyone agreed that the video only showed the defendant shoving a private security guard, not a law enforcement officer, and that even this didn’t show anything damning, since the situation was chaotic, and the crowd was milling about, shoving and pushing against the police cordon.

The judge asked the prosecutor for his plea, and the prosecutor stood up and basically said that in light of the video evidence, he had no choice but to argue for the defendant’s acquittal. The judge agreed, and asked us all to rise, then entered the official verdict. The defendant walked out of court a free man.

I find the informality of German court proceedings interesting, because it’s such a stark contrast with American courts. The judge controls the proceeding and asks common-sense questions to gather information. The defendant can show up without a lawyer, as this defendant did, and speak for himself about the charges directly to the judge. The judge also doesn’t engage in elaborate, scripted questioning routines to remind the defendant of his or her rights. Most judges don’t insist on much formality. As soon as lawyers and judges leave the courtroom, they remove their black robes and walk out of the courthouse looking like normal people. There’s not even a barrier between the witness stand (which is in the middle of the room, facing the judge), and the chairs for observers and visitors. When the defendant and his family left the courtroom, obviously happy with the outcome, they called an informal Tschüss (“Bye!”) to the courtroom personnel, and nobody was offended.

Germany may have a reputation for unnecessary bureaucracy, but German criminal trials belie this stereotype. Of course this was a low-level case, and more important trials will be more formal and have more security. But even those never approach the rigid, rule-bound style of American criminal justice. The guiding principle of a German trial is to quickly find out what the important issue is and decide it without a lot of fuss and bother. This is why many American observers, once they understand how the German justice system works, come away impressed with its no-nonsense efficiency.

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